What is a Sonnet Poem?
Definition of a Sonnet
Sonnet can be defined as,
“A verse form of Italian origin consisting of 14 lines in iambic pentameter with rhymes arranged according to a fixed scheme, usually divided either into octave and sestet or, in the English form, into three quatrains and a couplet”.
“A lyric poem of fourteen lines, often about love, that follows one of several strict conventional patterns of rhyme. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Keats, and William Shakespeare are poets known for their sonnets”.
History and Origin
The term "sonnet" is derived from the Occitan word sonet and the Italian word sonetto, meaning "little song" or "little sound". It evolved into a poem consisting of 14 lines by the thirteenth century, following a strict rhyming scheme and specific structure.
Basic Forms and Types of Sonnet
Italian or Petrarchan Sonnet
The Italian or Petrarchan sonnet is one of the oldest sonnet forms in the world of literature. This sonnet is further composed of two types of stanza forms. The group of first 8 lines is called the Octave with the rhyming structure abba abba .
The remaining 6 lines is called the Sestet and can have either two or three rhyming sounds, arranged in a variety of ways. Common rhyming patterns for a sestet is abcabc or abccba.
Example of Italian/Petrarchan Sonnet Poem
Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.
-London, by Wordsworth
The Spenserian sonnet, invented by Edmund Spenser is an outgrowth of the stanza pattern, used in his famous work The Faerie Queene (a b a b b c b c c), has the pattern:
Format of a Spenserian sonnet follows a abab pattern, consisting of independent 4-line groups, each containing a specific concept. The first 12 lines consist of lines with an overlapping abcd rhyming scheme, divided into 3 separate quatrains while the last 2 lines consist of a rhyming couplet.
The first 3 quatrains contain separate but loosely related idea while the last couplet professes an entirely different idea.
Example of Spenserian Sonnet Poem
What guile is this, that those her golden tresses
She doth attire under a net of gold;
And with sly skill so cunningly them dresses,
That which is gold or hair, may scarce be told?
Is it that men’s frail eyes, which gaze too bold,
She may entangle in that golden snare;
And being caught may craftily enfold
Their weaker hearts, which are not yet well aware?
Take heed therefore, mine eyes, how ye do stare
Henceforth too rashly on that guileful net,
In which if ever ye entrapped are,
Out of her bands ye by no means shall get.
Folly it were for any being free,
To covet fetters, though they golden be.
-Amoretti by Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-1599)
English or Shakespearian Sonnet
An English or Shakespearean is one of the simplest form in all sonnet poems and consists of 14 lines where each line contains ten syllables and is written in iambic pentameter.
The format of a Shakespearian sonnet has a pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable which is repeated five times. The English sonnet is composed of 3 quatrains of alternating rhyme while the last two lines are a rhyming couplet.
The rhyming scheme in a Shakespearean sonnet is abab, cdcd, efef, gg. Each quatrain in the English sonnet forms a specific concept which is closely related or follows the concept of the other quatrains.
Example of English/Shakespearian Sonnet Poem
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
-Shakespearian Sonnet 116
An indefinable sonnet is the one which does not fit any particular pattern yet consists all the basic elements of a sonnet.
Example of Indefinable Sonnet Poem
"Ozymandias" by Shelley is a famous example of indefinable sonnet poem which uses the rhyming pattern ababacdcedefef.
I met a traveller from an antique land
>Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, (stamped on these lifeless things,)
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Examples of Famous Sonnet Poems
Men call you fair, and you do credit it,
For that yourself you daily such do see:
But the true fair, that is the gentle wit
And virtuous mind, is much more praised of me.
For all the rest, however fair it be,
Shall turn to naught and lose that glorious hue:
But only that is permanent and free
From frail corruption that doth flesh ensue,
That is true beauty; that doth argue you
To be divine and born of heavenly seed;
Derived from that fair spirit, from whom all true
And perfect beauty did at first proceed:
He only fair, and what he fair hath made:
All other fair, like flowers, untimely fade.
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least.
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sigh
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun abd candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints–I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!–and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
-Elizabeth Barrett Browning